As the Kentucky Derby rolls nearer and nearer – May 5 to be exact – it seems everyone has a "Derby" story to tell. One our favorites involves Risen Star. The dark bay son of Secretariat finished third in 1988 to the filly Winning Colors. His jockey was the great Eddie Delahoussaye.
Now, anyone who knows which end the oats go in also knows how lucky Winning Colors was that year. The roan daughter of Caro got loose on the lead, and Risen Star was forced wide on the last turn and closed stoutly to finish third. Forty Niner was second with a better journey than Risen Star. How good was that Kentucky Derby field? Well, besides the three horses finishing in the money in the real "Great American Race" (sorry Daytona 500), Seeking the Gold, Regal Classic and Private Terms also competed.
For the record, in case you don’t remember, Risen Star won the Preakness and blew the doors off to win the Belmont Stakes as well. He was the best horse; no doubt about it. Don’t believe us? Watch the race on You Tube!
In 1988, the Fair Grounds racetrack was owned by Louie Roussel III. He also owned Risen Star, along with New Orleans car dealer Ronnie Lamarque. Roussel, an accomplished horseman, became Risen Star’s trainer, trusting no one but himself to bring his colt to perfection.
In early 1988, GamingToday (then known as Sports Form) publisher and simulcast pioneer Chuck Di Rocco and his finance man, Frank DeRenzo, journeyed to New Orleans to strike a deal to bring the Fair Grounds racing signal to Nevada. During the visit, Louie took time to show them Risen Star, and proudly pronounced that the lightly raced future champ would be the next Kentucky Derby winner.
Chuck and Frank had their doubts, but Chuck had known Louie for many years and he could not completely dismiss the bold prediction. He told Frank they should give it serious consideration.
Since both men were known to place a wager now and then, upon their return to Las Vegas they immediately began getting money down all over town on Risen Star in the future book, initially at 300-1 odds.
The 3-year-old colt won both his prep races – the Louisiana Derby and the Lexington Stakes, just two weeks before the Run for the Roses – and began looking more and more like a Derby winner.
After each win Chuck and Frank made more future wagers, although the odds had been steadily declining. Frank started to calculate with glee how much he was going to win. Chuck, a more seasoned gambler, realized nothing was certain until the red official sign came up on the tote board. He warned Frank not to count his money too soon or he could jinx everything. (Gamblers are, after all, a superstitious lot.)
Well, as they say, the rest in history. The best horse lost and tens of thousands of dollars in profits went up in smoke, the same way the old Fair Grounds did a few years later. But in time FG was rebuilt, and Chuck and Frank, after licking their wounds, went on to bet another day.
BY A NOSE: Were you paying attention two weeks ago when we told you El Padrino is a horse to watch? On Feb. 25 he won the $300,000 stakes race at Fair Grounds named after Risen Star, battling through the stretch with second place finisher Mark Valeski, winning by a nose. Did you cash? We hope so.
See you around town.